Trip to Muhu, Saaremaa and Abruka islands off the Estonian coast

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June 18th 2012
Published: August 25th 2012
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Parnu to Muhu to Saaremaa to Abruka and back to Parnu

June 18, my birthday trip to Saaremaa
The strong winds and rainy weather that challenged Heli's plans had subsided and we woke to brilliant sunshine for our one hour drive to Virtsu to catch the ferry to the little island of Muhumaa, or Muhu, "the island where time rests." Heli planned a very special three day trip on the islands of Muhu, Saaremaa and Abruka with Dave, her grandson Markus and me to celebrate my birthday and introduce us to the wonders of Estonia. The road to the ferry was nearly empty of cars and the countryside was mostly unoccupied forest with an occasional farmhouse. About 45 minutes north of Parnu the road widened to double the width for about a mile. Heli told us that during Soviet times this strip of road was used as a backup landing area for planes.
After the ferry docked in Kuivastu on the little island of Muhu we drove across the little island to the village of Igakula to visit the restored village of Koguva. This charming thatch roofed village dates back to the 16th century. Thick moss covered the old granite and limestone walls that edged fields of tall prairie grass. Many historic wooden buildings with thatched roofs provided an excellent example of traditional village architecture and helped to show how these people lived in this remote place so long ago. Heli proudly showed us beautiful examples of the colorful traditional costumes that identified people from this area. I bought two beeswax candles (the bees protested) along with a beautiful trivet made from cross sections of juniper wood, an example of the handicrafts using local materials. We took a short walk around the grounds and found a lovely statue of local writer Juhan Smuul with a raven perched on his shoulder.
We ate lunch in the rustic and charming Vanatoa Guesthouse with its bright white walls and bouquets of colorful fresh field flowers on tables, windowsills and in the fireplace. Dave and I had a Russian cream soup with moist black bread and for dessert we shared a Kama (mixture of oat, barley, rye and pea grain) and cranberry curd ice cream parfait, a special Estonian dish.
After lunch we left the island of Muhumaa and drove across the causeway connecting Muhu to Saaremaa. Heli told us that the longest ice road in Europe went from mainland Estonia to Muhumaa island on through Saaremaa and north to Hiiumaa Island. Today there were no signs of ice, just lovely white swans floating in the waters around the causeway.
Saaremaa, Estonia’s largest island, is known for its windmills, its thatch roofed traditional log homes and its beautiful juniper clad coastline. We set out to explore this lovely island and drove north along the sea to Angla to visit five early 18th century windmills situated on a farm accompanied by ducks, sheep and goats. The Angla Hertiage Museum located on Windmill Hill is made of dolomite and depicts rural life here in the early 18th century. One of the windmills is still operating and uses the wind power to grind flour. Bread making classes are held in this museum along with the opportunity to learn some of the lost arts of weaving, smithing, wood carving and stained glass. Saaremaa is known for its dolomite which is used in local crafts, fireplaces and building materials. The material is smooth like marble but softer and easier for carving. I purchased small candle holders made of dolomite here that feel so cool and smooth in your hand and gave me yet another opportunity to bring home a special stone from my trip. Before leaving Heli bought a very special loaf of black bread (that she saved for my birthday dinner) with the imprint of Angla embossed across the loaf.
Leaving Angla I had just mentioned that I had yet to see any wildlife in Russia or Estonia when Markus saw a beautiful red fox dash right I front of our car! We drove along the shore past fields of blue lupin and white Queen Anne's lace and just off the shore Markus spotted a pair of white swans floating in the sea. He’s my man!
Our next stop was at Panga Pang a spectacular limestone cliff overlooking the northernmost part of Saaremaa. In ancient times this place was a sacred place for praying, making fire and offering human or animal sacrifices to please the Sea God. Later, apparently more sophisticated cliff dwellers (or perhaps the demands of a more sophisticated Sea God) adopted the practice of pouring beer or vodka to satisfy the Sea God. Markus and I (illegally) climbed partway up the lighthouse tower for a better view but the wind was so strong it forced us down. On June 22 this place will be the site of a great summer solstice celebration. I wonder if beer and vodka will be part of that celebration? As we walked through the woods Markus pointed out an enormous ant hill, about three feet across and three feet high. The forest floor surrounding the hill was covered with busy farmer ants. Markus told us to stamp our feet to prevent the ants from crawling up our legs and biting us. Good advice.
Leaving Panga Pang we drove along the sea and I was angling my camera at the breathtaking sites. Heli, sensing my interest in the beautiful views, pulled the car over to explore the beautiful bay that was dotted with large round glacial boulders, a most spectacular site. Luckily we got another glimpse of swans on our way to the Aadu Talu Tourist Farm where we will stay for two nights. Before reaching the farm we stopped first in Kuressaare, the capitol of Saaremaa, for provisions to make dinner. The 17km drive from Kuressaare to this remote resort reminds me of Cape Cod as it might have been centuries ago. Long expanses of scrub juniper and wildflowers lined the roads with occasional glimpses of the deep blue sea.
Heli planned an exceptional evening at Aadu Talu for my birthday. She cooked sausages on the grill and served them with an especially wonderful Estonian hot mustard. Along with the sausages we enjoyed traditional Estonian salads sitting outside in the late evening twilight. Dinner was followed by a 2km walk to the sea on the Suure-Rootsi Nature Trail, a winding path though fields of sweet smelling wildflowers, grassy meadows and scrub juniper. When we finally made it to the grass edged sea we found white swans floating serenely in the distance. Markus climbed along the round boulders that projected from the shore, skimming rocks and adding to the relaxing mood of this peaceful setting. I was reluctant to leave, but Heli had more in store for my birthday so we walked back in the late evening twilight to our resort where Heli told us she had arranged for a private sauna for Dave and me in a sweet little wooden building surrounded by lilacs, yellow wisteria, and well designed flower gardens. We were even provided fresh birch branches for the traditional slapping of the skin (to improve circulation.) The sauna was a holy place for ancient Estonians so as we sat in the hot Finnish sauna, drinking our traditional Estonian beer we tried to imagine what life would be like if we lived here. A shower was just outside the sauna in a private room where we were able to refresh our skin before returning for more of this amazing sauna experience.
Heli and Marcus were waiting for us outside when we finished our half hour sauna experience to bring us back to the outdoor tables for my birthday cake and wine toast under clear skies with a slowly setting red sun. It was 11PM.

June 19 exploring Saaremaa
A breakfast banquet of porridge, cheese, meats, herring, tomato, cucumber, black breads, cereal, homemade apple cider, coffee and tea was laid out for us in the main Aadu Talu Tourist Farm dining hall at 9am and once again I ate too much. Heli had planned a morning boat trip to the little island of Abruka but because of high winds and cold temperatures she aborted her original plans and we drove out to see the Kaali Meteorite Crater. On the way to the crater we drove through low lying rain clouds passing an old church just visible in the mist. In the fields before the church we were delighted to find red poppies and a few bachelor buttons (the national flower of Estonia) dancing in the grassy meadows. I soaked my pants running through the rain soaked meadow to photograph the flowers.
Heli came prepared for our rainy visit with plastic hooded raincoats that she insisted we wear to the wet walk down to the crater. As much as I protested I was actually grateful for the little added warmth the rain gear provided. The Kaali Meteorite Crater measures 110 meters across. Much research is being done on the sites where the craters were formed over 4,000 years ago. The Kaali Crater is considered to be the most recent meteorite crater in Europe. Thick green moss covered the rocks and trees surrounding the crater site lending a fairytale atmosphere but also telling us that the air was healthy and not polluted. The ancients considered this crater to be the tomb of the son of Apollo. Perhaps my impressions of a fairytale feeling were not so far off.
Leaving the crater, on our drive into Kuressaare we spotted a small herd of Scottish cattle grazing beneath an old windmill. These cows with their sharp horns and long strands of sand colored hair falling over their sleepy eyes were curious but not terribly interested as Markus tried to feed them some grass. This is just another example of the bucolic country settings to be found on this lovely island.
It was chilly and still raining lightly so we didn't linger but drove on to Kuressaare to tour the medieval castle. Heli drove us to the harbor first to get a better view of the castle and to see the statue of Estonia’s mythological captain Great Toll and his wife Piret carrying a boat full of his fish from the sea. Toll was the king of Saaremaa but he lived as a common farmer. He was so tall that his walking stick was a 5 fathoms spruce tree trunk. Toll was legendary for his strength, exemplified by throwing boulders at his enemies, and his great successes bringing in large catches of fish from the sea. We later learned that Toll also planted nut trees on the Island of Abruka and they grew in such great abundance and were larger than all the other nuts of the region.
Kuressaare Bishop’s Castle with its large thick dolomite and limestone walls dates back to the end of the 13th century and is surrounded by the traditional moat. It is the only medieval fortress authentically preserved in the Baltic countries. A woman in traditional period costume played music in the cold stone great hall helping to bring us back to the medieval period. I especially enjoyed the museum’s history that lined the walls and halls of this enormous castle. The Kuressaare Fortress surrounds and protects the old stone castle and today hosts operas and music festivals inside the walls of the fortress.
In keeping with the ancient customs we sampled traditional Estonian national food for lunch at the Veski Trahter Windmill Tavern. This charming restaurant located in the old town of Kuressaare is housed in an old windmill. Before eating we climbed the five floors of the windmill to learn about how it operated back in the day. Dave and I sampled Heli's local fried herring dipped in a sour cream sauce and I ordered roast boar in a ginger and honey sauce with barley mash and a roasted, julienned rutabaga and carrot dish. Dave had roast lamb with potato dumplings, golden cabbage and roasted garlic. We shared a glass of kama jook, a traditional Estonian dessert drink made of sour milk, salt, sugar and the kama mixture of rye, oat, barley and pease (pea) flour. It was really delicious! While we ate our lunch we listened to traditional Estonian music that sounded to my ear very much like old Irish fishing songs.
The weather was still unsettled so we walked into the center of Kuressaare Old Town to visit the town hall and tourist center for advice on where to go next. Inside the lovely old building Heli found one of her former students who was managing the tourist center. She gave us excellent advice for touring more of Saaremaa while staying warm and dry. While Heli was getting advice on our next adventure Dave and I went upstairs to the unique art exhibit that featured interesting multi-media presentations.
Heli took us first to Mandjala, a beach she loved as a child. This area was different than any of the other beaches we had seen for there were grassy dunes and long expanses of rockless sand. Beautiful purple native orchids and yellow sedum grew in grey tufts of soft mossy carpets that flanked the piney paths to and from the sea. The setting was magical and I could understand Heli’s strong attachment to this special beach.
I too loved the beach and had to be dragged away to the car for our drive to Vilsandi National Park which proved to be one of the best experiences yet. Vilsandi is the oldest national park in Europe dating back to the early 1900s. The recently restored Loona Manor, located amidst fields of yellow rape seed, Queen Anne's lace, bluebells and bachelor buttons, dates back to the early 1500s and is the centerpiece of the park. When we walked in the front door of Loona Manor we were greeted by the wonderful smell of fresh baked bread. The enthusiastic manager offered us coffee and Estonian traditional rye bread but not before giving us a private tour of the kitchens to show us the process of this ancient art of bread making. While we ate the delicious feast we learned all about their plans to develop this as a major European ecotourism center. Over tea we learned about the various flora and fauna found in the park then we took a tour of the lovely manor and learned that there was an authentic smoke sauna in this park. In the old tradition of smoke saunas an open fire burns half a day and smoke sneaks out through the gaps in the windows and door. The hot stones “grow ripe like tomatoes” and is ready hours later when the air is clear leaving a woodsy smokey smell in the sauna.
The park was beginning to close and we were encouraged to quickly visit the geology center but soon after we entered the building Heli discovered that the guide was the daughter of her father's second wife and they had grown up together. They hadn't seen each other since they were small children so were delighted to catch up on their past histories. We didn't have long to visit the geology center but I was enthralled with what I learned and was so lucky to be given a book I had wanted to buy about the geology of Saaremaa.
We were strongly suggested that we not leave the area before stopping at a locally famous award winning Soogimaja Restaurant for tea on our way home. I was surprised that anyone even knew about its location for it was an unassuming old schoolhouse that had no visible signs of being a restaurant sitting next to a lovely old church. We walked around the red wooden schoolhouse with its unusual cabins and outbuildings. Inside we were seated in a small room with windows to the gardens and fresh flowers on the table. In spite of the fact that we were not really hungry, we enjoyed tea and a very tasty rhubarb cake that I hoped I would not wear later.
My plans for a walk to the sea back at Aadu Talu were thwarted by cold winds so we ate the remains of yesterday's dinner before settling in after our long and eventful day.

June 20 boat to Abruka Island and lorry tour then back to Parnu
The Gods were smiling on us as we woke to clear blue skies, light winds and warmer weather. We were going to Abruka after all! But first we had another filling breakfast in the main dining hall of Aadu Talu. Hearty porridge, a different kind of herring that was smoked and jellied, tomatoes and cucumber salad, cheeses and meats and a selection of good brown breads. Again they offered their home made apple cider as well as a home made apple jam for the breads.
Heli had prearranged our 9am boat trip to Abruka out of the main harbor in Kuressaare so we ate quickly, packed the car and bade farewell to this charming farm. A large hare jumped out of the bush just missing our car as drove down the long road leaving the farm to meet Neeme, the captain of Elisabeth, the beautiful wooden sailboat that would carry us out to Abruka. It turns out that Neeme would also "captain" the lorry that would ferry us around the small island. The trip from Saaremaa to Abruka took about 45 minutes and when we landed in the harbor Markus again pointed out lovely white swans swimming in the quiet little bay.
The lorry was an old truck with a wooden back that dropped down to support a wooden ladder on which we climbed to our log perches inside the open cargo area. Heli said the president of Estonia and his wife recently toured Abruka in a similar lorry! The truck lumbered through open meadows with views to the sea and thick forests that ripped through overhanging branches that we all had to take cover from. We were able to get out for a brief walk by the sea where Heli found some excellent examples of ancient fossils imbedded in stones. We bumped our way along the rutted roads into an open meadow where we stopped again to climb an old wooden windmill. From the top of the windmill we gained a birds eye view to the sea beyond the meadow. It was here that I spied three hawks circling overhead. Neeme said in all the years he has been here he has never seen any hawks before. Neeme stopped the lorry again by his summer cabin to show us his wooden hot tub. His home, situated in the open meadow, was formerly a firehouse and there were still machines in the building left over from its former use. While we were there a neighbor showed up on his bicycle to pay a visit. This tiny peaceful island is a real throw back to centuries before when travel on dirt roads was done on foot, bicycle or horseback. City dwellers in Estonia are beginning to recognize the value of this relaxing lifestyle and have begun building summer homes on the island. I hope it doesn’t become too popular and change the charm that brought them here.
Abruka with only eight square km, had such a diversity of plants and trees, forests, marshes and seaside meadows with songbirds and swallows floating over the abundant wildflowers, and, at this time, hardly anyone lived here to enjoy it. At one time up to 300 people farmed on the island but now just a handful of summer people take up residence here. There are only two "stores" on Abruka and they only sell water and beer. Neeme told us that during one winter for three months the ice was not thick enough to travel on and it was not possible to get to the main island by boat so the people had to live by their stores of food that were put by from the previous summer.
We sailed away from little Abruka and once back on the mainland we said farewell to our Captain Neeme. We had lunch in the restaurant overlooking the harbor but it took so long that Heli was worried all through lunch that we would miss our ferry back to the mainland. As soon as we could we hopped back in the car and headed straight for the ferry passing beautiful fields of poppies that will have to remain in my memory since we didn't have time to stop.
Poor Heli was worn out from driving, translating, playing tour guide and stressing out about arriving on time so she took a much deserved nap on the ferry to give her the energy she needed to show us more of her beloved Estonia on the way back to Parnu.
We stopped just a few miles from Markus' home to see the amazing Valgeranna Adventure Park that Heli refers to as the monkey park since the people climb trees like monkeys. This amazing park nestled in the trees but overlooking the sea has platforms, nets, rope ladders and zip lines in five continuous tree-top trails that can challenge young beginners as well as seasoned athletes but you’d better not be afraid of heights. If I had the time I would have stayed to enjoy the entire park. Just one more reason why I wished I lived here! Instead I had to settle by watching the excitement from the ground well below the excitement above me.
Attracting Dave’s attention was the lovely White Beach Golf Course with its many water hazards that was on the other side of the park. Tucked in the pine forest nearby we found the Villa Andropoff, once the private escape of the Soviet Bureaucrats. The villa is now open to the public and is owned by the White Beach Golf Course. This large hotel and conference center (with only four suites) is located directly on the sea with a mile long beautiful white sandy beach. We walked down to explore this beach and I found it was not unlike the powdery white sand found on Florida's Siesta Key beach. During the Soviet era this whole area was closed off with barbed wire and local residents were forbidden to use this part of the beach or woods. Once again the Soviet Bureaucrats had chosen a prime location for their retreats.
We dropped Markus off at his home and returned to Heli's home for the evening. Before going to bed we watched my favorite conductor Gustavo Dudamel conduct an amazing performance with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra on Estonian Public Television. Their public television was so very similar to ours that I felt quite at home.


25th August 2012

A special memory
Thank you Heli for making Kell's birthday so special. Kell, you did a great job in pictures and words capturing how special this place is. It is an experience we will never forget.

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